In the first entry of a four-part series that takes an in-depth look at the futurity industry, champion futurity trainers Kenna Squires, Dena Kirkpatrick and Kassie Mowry, and owner Cindy Gayle assess the truth of statements often directed at futurity trainers.
MYTH 1: Futurity trainers don’t mind ruining a horse’s long-term career to win now.
Ask just about any futurity trainer or jockey if they view their horses as expendable commodities, and you will likely find yourself face-to-face with someone who’s wondering if you’ve lost your mind. A good barrel horse is hard to find, and a good futurity horse is even more rare. The majority of barrel racing’s top futurity trainers go above and beyond to ensure the long-term health of their horses.
For 2009 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Finals champion Kassie Mowry, the monetary rewards that are available within the futurity world make it a high-stakes game, and that can fuel negative perceptions.
“We’re running young horses for a lot of money,” Mowry says, “so a lot of people just assume that we’ll blow one up for a quick fix or to make something work.”
Some of these perceptions can also be attributed to the fact that most trainers don’t just make a living by training at home. The majority of what they make is based on how well their horses perform on the road and by how much they win.
“I think that over the years, everybody has tried to see how far they can go with [pushing horses],” multiple-time futurity champion Kenna Squires says. “There’s not that many of us, so everybody knows what happens when it gets excessive. In the [Open and rodeo] world, it’s a lot harder to keep up with what everybody is doing. In this world, it’s a lot easier because not everyone does this.”
Former NFR qualifier Dena Kirkpatrick believes that the pressure that younger horses can feel at an event, especially early in their careers, can have a big effect on how well they perform. Some handle it well early on, and some don’t.
”A good trainer knows when to push them and when to stop,” she says. “They won’t push them too hard too fast. If you don’t take care of them, you can’t expect them to perform. It’s real simple. These horses these days, have got to perform at a level that’s above everything else.”
Much of the perception that barrel racing futurity trainers are willing to push their horses too far, too fast may also be a result of carryover feelings from the race horse industry.
“We get compared to the running horses that go to the racetrack, where they’re running for their life as 2- and 3-year-olds,” says Cindy Gayle, who co-owns horses with Kirkpatrick. “These trainers have got to push them, and there’s not a life after the track for many racehorses.”
However, unlike racehorses, many of which have finished competing by 3 years old, barrel racing offers many opportunities for horses to have a long and productive career well into their teens and early 20s. But similar to a person starting a new job and taking a while to get into the flow of things, barrel horses who leave their futurity trainers and move on to their next owners often experience a learning curve with their new riders-resulting in claims of “blow up” if they do not find a rhythm with that person immediately.
“Some people just want to buy them and go to winning,” Mowry says, “and that makes it really hard.”
Asking a young horse to make an instant transition to a new handler, no matter how skilled the rider, is often expecting too much of a horse that is still growing and learning.
“Even these colts that win $100,000 in their futurity years, they end up getting sold, and they are by no means finished,” Mowry says. “Futurities are a stepping stone. They still go through changes and steps to go to the next level. I think people assume they are finished. He’s 5 years old and has been running barrels for one year.
“When you figure that a horse is going to a new rider, and the horse doesn’t know anybody else, and you think someone’s just going to get on and take the reins and just long-trot them around the pasture all week and go run them on the weekend-it doesn’t work like that.”
While the allure of winning big money and prestigious titles may be tempting for some, most barrel racers who make their living training futurity horses know the quickest way to ruin their reputation and lose clients is to ruin the horses they ride.
Gayle says in her experience, futurity trainers take exceptional care of their horses.
“If not, they’re not going to win,” she says, “and they’re not going to get any more horses [to train].”
Nevertheless, Squires, Kirkpatrick and Mowry all admit that the draw of big money and a quick turn-around each year opens the door for people who are willing to gamble with a horse’s health.
“Horses are going to get burned up anywhere you give people enough money to run them out,” Squires says. “There’s always somebody that may have less scruples.”
Still, Squires adds that she believes people who have never actually witnessed an incident themselves or even met the people they are criticizing post most of the negative comments about futurity trainers that are circulated on the Internet.
“I think one person has something to say, and they spread it around, and it just goes on,” she says. “But they haven’t actually seen anything. They don’t know the trainer. They might have watched them on the Internet now, but at one time, they couldn’t even do that.
“There’s no industry where there isn’t somebody who’s done something outstandingly bad. It is the way it is. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in. That’s probably how things get going.”
Mowry says she simply looks to the young horses with futurity backgrounds who have run in recent National Finals Rodeos to know that more good comes out of the futurity industry than bad.
“I go back and look at these NFR horses,” she says, “and 10 of 15 of them were standout futurity horses. You just can’t convince me that this isn’t a good program for getting good horses out there.”
MYTH 2: Futurity trainers use heavy-handed tactics to make young horses work.
For professional futurity trainers, a solid reputation translates into a solid demand for their services.
Squires and Kirkpatrick agree that there are people in every sport in the horse industry who have crossed the line and done inexcusable things, but for professional futurity trainers, such heavy handed tactics come with a hefty price tag-their continued livelihood as a trainer.
Kirkpatrick refuses to push a horse to make a race with a big payday if she knows the horse isn’t ready. For she and Gayle, it’s about the long-term payoff, not the short-term windfall.
“Some people think we’re nuts because the big money is earlier, and we didn’t get any of that,” Kirkpatrick says of holding horses back, “but we’re happy because these horses are growing up nice, and we’ll finish the year strong.
“The bigger the money gets, I think the more sacrificing of animals there becomes. That’s a real problem.”
Squires believes that many incidents of over-aggressive handling on the part of futurity jockeys comes as a result of nerves when at a bigger show.
“It’s usually not your main people who come to futurities,” she says. “It’s that guy who has this special colt with all his hopes in him that just wants to get it right one time before he goes into the main pen to make his run. That gets futurity people talked about, too, and it basically comes from nerves-horses’ nerves and peoples’ nerves.”
Mowry insists, however, that the majority of futurity trainers know the ticket to doing well on young horses is to implement horsemanship, not bullying tactics.
“We have to train them to do this,” she says. “Just manhandling them around-that’s not fast. If you’re having to pull that hard on one because it’s not going to turn, it’s not going to clock anyway.
“We’re not afraid to send horses home. We’re not going to beat it into them. We’re not afraid to just step down and do something else with them for a while and step back. They don’t win when they’re not happy.”
And the horse’s happiness is key to how Squires wants her horses to run and work.
“If you ask them to run, and they’re not ready,” she says, “you get a colt that’s running scared. He’s not running straight, and they run less. If they’re not ready to cut loose and run free, and they understand their job, we are going to set them back. I want that horse to know his job and be going real well. I don’t even leave the house unless they truly understand what they’re doing.
“I like something Bo [Hill] says, ‘If you didn’t bring it with you, you’re not going to find it here.’ If your horse wasn’t working at the house, you’re not going to find it at the arena in the warm-up pen.”
Discipline is a part of preparing a horse for his job and of keeping him safe. Well thought out discipline-not angry tirades-is a trainer’s duty. Kirkpatrick compares it to raising children.
“I think if you don’t train horses, kind of like if you try to give advice and you’ve never had a child before, you don’t know what it takes,” she says. “I’m not above disciplining a horse, just like my kids. They have to have [discipline] to protect them. I have to have it to keep them safe.”
MYTH 3: Training futurity horses is easy.
The constant drive to develop colts early and have them ready for their futurity year isn’t unique to barrel racing. But being able to find and start training that elusive exceptional yearling or 2-year-old has gotten harder and harder as more people have become involved, both as owners and riders, in the easily-accessible barrel racing futurity industry.
“These main trainers don’t have room [to train more],” Squires says, “so they’re getting a 3-year-old or a late 2, and they’re having to get after it to get them ready to compete.”
However, most people have no idea how much time and effort it takes to make a hot, young colt a barrel horse.
“They do not realize the circles we have to lope and the miles we have to make on these horses before they get them later on,” Squires says.
Mowry believes that the speed that many futurity horses bring to the table is another quality that most people don’t consider.
“We’re riding AAA racehorses now,” Mowry says. “We’re not riding our husband’s heading horse anymore. They’re running machines.
“They didn’t used to run as many racehorses, and now, I’m running the brother of a horse that ran out $700,000 [on the racetrack]. And that’s what I’m trying to make stop and turn! Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
It’s this, and the typically fickle nature of young horses, that keep most futurity trainers from believing too much of their own press.
“You will not find nearly the arrogance here that you’ll find at the rodeos because every year we’re at square one and start all over again,” Kirkpatrick says. “Every futurity, there are so many tough trainers and horses, and the breeding is getting better and better and better. It’s just anybody’s day.”
Making the short go at a futurity isn’t as simple as making a couple of pretty runs anymore. If a horse isn’t broke and doesn’t know his job inside and out, he won’t be consistent, and he won’t win.
“These horses, they’ve got a little more to them,” Squires says, “but they want to do it. If they don’t have it in them, they won’t make it here.”
MYTH 4: Futurity trainers don’t get along with each other – or others.
Although futurities are highly competitive, most futurity trainers and jockeys love to talk to their fans and to other barrel racers.
“I think every time somebody first comes in,” Squires says. “They watch everybody doing their own thing, and they already know one another, and they feel like there’s a club, and they’re not a member yet because there’s not that many of us. If you go to three shows, you pretty much can figure out who everybody is, and everyone is friendly.”
With such a small community of jockeys and trainers, Squires says it doesn’t take long for everyone to not only learn each other’s personalities, but the personalities of their horses as well.
“There’s some pretty ‘interesting things and some very talented people that you’re not going to see at a rodeo that you’re going to see here,” she says. “They’re incredible. I don’t think you’ve seen it all if you haven’t seen these guys, too.”
The close-knit atmosphere serves two purposes: it gives the riders and trainers a cheering section of their peers, and it gives them all the support group they need when their horses don’t perform.
“Nobody gets too cocky around here, because as soon as you start thinking you’re somebody, that 4-year-old [horse] tells you you’re not,” Mowry says. “It’s a fun group, too. I wish more people would be involved in this. We all pull for each other. There’s nothing that we like more than a great run. I could sit there and watch the best of the best outrun me. We all understand the blood, sweat and tears to get that, and when it works out for them, it’s awesome. “
MYTH 5: Futurity trainers don’t care what happens to their horses after their futurity year is over.
“Everybody that goes to these futurities wants their horses that they love and that are great colts to go to somebody that’s going to take care of them and keep them being the neat horses that they already know they are,” Squires says. “Nobody says, ‘I’m not afraid to burn one up.’ Nobody would think that way. That’s not conducive to winning.”
And just because a horse doesn’t make a great futurity horse doesn’t mean that it won’t become an outstanding Open or rodeo horse as it matures. Countless “late bloomers” have gone on to have legendary careers well after their futurity days were done.
Many top trainers believe it isn’t necessary to push or harm a horse to succeed as a futurity horse because there are many more opportunities available to older barrel horses than there are in some other disciplines.
Kirkpatrick and Gayle have sold many horses, with some thriving as kids horses and others going on to run at the NFR after learning a foundation under Kirkpatrick’s guiding hand.
“Dena has trained nine horses that have gone to the NFR,” Gayle says. “She trains a horse that is so solid and has such a good foundation on them, and these girls know it.”
Kirkpatrick says her goal is to train her futurity colts so they can have careers after the futurities.
“The reiners think that we have got it going on because we have 4D barrel races to go to,” Kirkpatrick says. “If a horse is slower, there’s something for almost all of these horses. If they’re ride-able, if they can still do the pattern, someone can take them to the 4D and have fun with them.”
It’s a market that Gayle, as an owner, is happy to provide with racing companions.
“You look around,” Gayle says, “and the 4D pays as much as the 1D. There’s 70 percent of the women going down the road that will place in the 2D-5D, and that’s 70 percent that will buy your horse.”
But selling a horse that was trained and campaigned as a futurity mount isn’t always as easy as it sounds for the trainers who raise and guide them.
“We love these horses,” Mowry says. “It’s heartbreaking to let one go. We’re used to being around them every day, and we know how they move and how they think. It’s hard to let them go. We’re nothing without them. They eat before we eat … You just have so much respect for them.”
For Squires, if she has campaigned a horse as a colt, it is more than just a horse. It has become a member of her family, so she takes great care in not only determining whether he would be best suited to be a rodeo horse or an Open horse, but also in determining the type of riding style that would best mesh with his own.
“I want to see them go somewhere they will be happy,” Squires says. “I couldn’t stand the thought of selling one and seeing that person being miserable with my horse, and my horse that could have been happy somewhere else being miserable, too. I love to see them win, and I love to see them loved.”
For Mowry, the only thing that really matters is the happiness and well being of the horses that she has had a hand in mentoring.
“This animal gets nothing out of this,” she says of running barrels. “They’re not getting the money, and they’re not getting the blue ribbons or the recognition or any of it. They just do it because they want to please us.
“When we experience one of those pleasers that will do anything for us, we have a ton of respect for them because you don’t get them very often. They take care of us. We get in their way more than we should being trainers, and some of them take up the slack for us. Every now and then, I’ll do something stupid, and thank goodness my horse knows what it’s doing because you would never know. They’re there for you, too.”
This article was originally published in the August 2010 issue of Barrel Horse News.